Simply Elegant found a new home for its events in Calgary - Skyline.

By Kim Covert, Canwest News Service

OTTAWA — It’s not quite the star in the east, but the return of the company Christmas party provides a little glimmer of hope at the end of 2009’s long, dark economic tunnel.

Most festivities this December will have nothing on the boozy free-for-alls of years past, but 79 per cent of respondents to a survey of Canadian companies say they plan to reward their loyal employees with a bit of a holiday do.

“I think having a party is a clear communication from the organization that (employees) are valued, the contribution that they’ve made in a tough year such as 2009 is appreciated,” says Prashant Chadha, a compensation consultant with Hewitt Associates, which conducted the survey.

In the last few months there’s been a growing optimism that the economy is recovering, he said.

“I think that’s helped organizations feel better about their budgets and they are actually expecting to do better in the coming year, so have kind of loosened the purse strings and said ‘ . . . you guys have done a great job, let’s have a party and let us show our appreciation’.”

Small business owners, in particular, are feeling more optimistic this year than last, said Dan Kelly, a senior vice-president with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“It was a pretty dark holiday season in many respects at the end of last year and business expectations are up fairly significantly from that, which is terrific,” Kelly says.

Small businesses aren’t the ones renting out hotel ballrooms for their holiday parties, Kelly noted, but given how closely the owner tends to work with the staff in smaller firms, “they are often loath to cut things like employee perks and rewards and some sort of holiday party is a regular part of the operations of a small business.”

Chadha said the last time human resources consultant Hewitt conducted this survey, in 2005, 83 per cent of employers planned a holiday party. Event planners interviewed by Canwest News Service said they saw a definite drop-off in business last year.

Robert Vidra, of Calgary’s Simply Elegant, said he prepared for the downturn but if he hadn’t, his business would have been down by as much as 70 per cent in 2008.

Sixty-one per cent of companies surveyed by Hewitt say they’ll foot the entire party bill for employees and guests. While 31 per cent say they’ll host employee-only events, 84 per cent of those employers plan to pick up the whole tab.

Vidra says he works hard to convince employers that there will be a good return if they invest in an employee party.

“We’re saying don’t back down. Don’t throw the $200,000 party, but treat your staff really well.”

The Hewitt survey found employers are spending $100 or less per person on this year’s parties. Vidra says his median this year is about $50.

One trend noted by Hewitt and party planners such as Vidra is the trend toward smaller, more intimate gatherings for the team or department instead of a companywide event.

“That’s another thing that you see when companies have lunches, they’re department lunches rather than 500 employees going out together,” said Chadha.

That’s what energy giant Suncor is doing following this year’s merger with Petro-Canada, “giving employees a chance to get to really know their colleagues,” according to spokeswoman Sneh Seetal, who adds the company will be spending about the same per employee as in previous years.

Potash Corp. in Saskatoon, on the other hand, is holding its usual holiday party for corporate office employees and their spouses, a dinner dance at a downtown hotel, says spokesman Bill Johnson.

Lunches are big this year, says one Ottawa events planner, noting that the same goes for private-sector and federal government clients.

Vidra says he finds it refreshing to do the smaller events.

“It’s always fun to do the bigger splashes because that’s really where you get to create and get to play,” he said. “I think right now more than ever it’s important to give a sense of community to the workplace, employees need to feel much safer, they need to feel that they’re welcomed, part of the bigger picture, and we’re noticing that the corporate parties are following that sort of line. The parties are much more community-based.”

With files from Calgary Herald

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